Born Richard Georg Strauss, June 11, 1864, in Munich, Bavaria (now Germany), (died September 8, 1949 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria of uremia); son of Franz (a professional musician) and Josephine Pschorr Strauss; married Pauline de Ahna (an opera singer), September 10, 1894; children: Franz. Education: Attended University of Munch, 1882-83.

Considered one of the greatest in Germany's long line of musical giants, Richard Strauss was an innovator early in his career. His work was influenced by both Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, and in mid-career he became famous for operas that at the time were considered quite daring. In his elder years, Strauss fell into disgrace for his somewhat inadvertent associations with the Nazi Party.

Strauss was born into a wealthy and accomplished Munich family in 1864. His mother was an heiress of the Pschorr brewing dynasty, a famous name in German beer, and his father Franz was a well-regarded horn player in the Munich Symphony Orchestra. The elder Strauss, however, had also become famous for his tirades against the music of Richard Wagner, a revered name in Germany music during the era; he even forbid his son to listen to Wagner's operas or compositions. Strauss began learning piano by the age of four, taking lessons from colleagues of his father's, and began to compose around the age of six. He gave piano recitals as a teen, and attended the University of Munich for a time to study philosophy and esthetics. When he was just 18, Strauss premiered his first symphony in Dresden, Germany. The conductor of the Munich Symphony Orchestra, Hans von Buelow, allowed him to make his conducting debut-without rehearsal-in Munich in 1884 leading the orchestra through his Suite for Winds in B Flat.

Exposed to Wagner

In 1885 Strauss became conductor of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, and one of its violinists, Alexander Ritter, became a great influence. Ritter was a composer and poet, married to Wagner's niece, and introduced Strauss to the music of both Liszt and Wagner.

In 1886 Strauss became assistant conductor of the Munich Court Opera, and traveled to Italy that same summer. The following year, he broke from the traditional form and began working in what he called the "tone poem." Other composers, such as Liszt, generally used the term "symphonic poem," but both phrases describe a piece of program music based on an extramusical idea. The work, Aus Italien, used discord and ignited a controversy-half the premiere audience cheered, while the other half booed. Another tone poem, Don Juan, premiered in Weimar, Germany, in 1889 to a more favorable reception. Music scholars consider Don Juan Strauss's first mature work, and its success made an important figure in German music seemingly overnight. Another tone poem, Tod und Verklrung ("Death and Transfiguration"), also met with critical approval when it debuted in 1889.

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche ("Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks"), a 1894 comic tale of a rogue, and Also Sprach Zarathustra ("Zarathustra Spoke")-based on a book by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and debuted in 1896-would become Strauss's most enduring works for the orchestra. The Zarathustra melody gained even greater recognition when film director Stanley Kubrick used them in his classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another tone poem from this era, Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life") in 1898 featured the composer himself as hero, the music critics as foes. "All were well received and consolidated his position as the outstanding composer of his day, regarded as the arch-fiend of modernism and cacophony because of the huge instrumental forces, the innovatory design and the naturalistic effects employed in these masterpieces," noted an essay on Strauss in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

First Opera a Disaster

Strauss fell ill for a time, and wintered in Egypt in 1892. He was busy writing his first opera, Guntram, during this period. It premiered at the Weimar Hofttheater in May of 1894. Its Munich debut was a spectacular failure. The Munich Orchestra actually the petitioned the local authorities to censor it, and it closed after one performance. The composer felt the sting of this treatment in his native city keenly, and would later extract his own creative revenge.

Strauss met soprano Pauline de Ahna in 1887, a famously tempestuous performer, and they married in September of 1894. During this time, his career as both a composer and conductor was progressing splendidly. He found favor with Wagner's widow Cosima, who oversaw the annual Bayreuth Festival of Wagner's operas, and directed some of its productions. In 1896 he was hired as chief conductor of the Munich Opera, and composed his second opera, Feuersnot, in the final years of the century. It premiered in Dresden in November of 1901, a medieval tale set in Munich that mocked the city's conservative strain. By this time he was serving as music director for the Berlin Royal Opera, a post he held until around 1910.

Strauss was a enigmatic persona in his day. Many disliked him, though some appreciated his genius. At times he was condemned as vulgar and preoccupied with money and fame. "Not many people would have written an enormous and deafening symphonic poem about his own home life, including an embarrassingly boastful five minutes depicting his sexual prowess; and fewer would have been happy to conduct it in a department store and brag about the enormous fee afterwards," remarked Philip Hensher in the Spectator. The work that Hensher referred to was the Symphonia domestica, which premiered in America in 1904. But Strauss also campaigned determinedly to revise German copyright law, and after a seven-year fight, music royalty laws were amended to be more favorable to composers, rather than the publishing firms.

The Shocking Salome

Strauss ignited even more controversy with his 1905 opera Salome, based on Oscar Wilde's titillating play. It premiered in December of 1905 at the Dresden Royal Opera, and was vilified in the press as erotic, vulgar, and altogether repulsive, but audiences still flocked to see it. Its title character was a minor figure from the biblical account of the death of John the Baptist. Salome is the teenage stepdaughter of Herodes, the tetrarch who has imprisoned the apostle-here called Jochanaan-for his belief in Christ. Bewitching but spoiled, Salome is fascinated by the prisoner, and angers when he spurns her advances. She performs the "Dance of the Seven Veils" for her stepfather, then demands the head of Jochanaan as her reward for this erotic moment. In the opera's final scene, she rapturously kisses Jochanaan's bloody severed head.

For years to come, productions of Salome had to include a ballerina performing the Seven Veils dance, since the female opera singers steadfastly refused. Strauss's own father proclaimed the opera "perverted music," and even Kaiser Wilhelm II had words of caution for him. But Strauss's Salome was staged 50 times around the world over the next two years, and the success provided Strauss with funds to build a villa in the mountainous area of Bavaria called Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Despite its worldwide success, the production of Salome at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1907 was plagued by internal strife at the organization, and the production was canceled after opening night.

Strauss followed this success with another violence-driven opera that featured an unbalanced woman, Elektra, which made its debut in January of 1909 at the Dresden Royal Opera. It was Strauss's first work with a new librettist, the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Their collaboration would prove a prolific and successful one over the next two decades.

Success with Hofmannsthal

Strauss's work suddenly became more conservative with the period comic opera Der Rosenkavalier. Debuting in Dresden in 1911, it greatly pleased audiences; it used the waltz as a recurring musical theme and was quite Mozart in spirit. It remains Strauss's most enduringly popular work. Other operas written with Hofmannsthal included Ariadne auf Naxos("Ariadne on Naxos"), 1912; Die Frau ohne Schatten("The Woman without Shadows"), 1919; Die agyptische Helena ("The Egyptian Helena"), 1928; and Arabella, 1933.

By World War I, Strauss-then in his fifties-was a preeminent figure in German music. He co-founded the Salzburg Festival in 1917 with Hofmannsthal and Max Reinhardt, and from 1919 onward served as joint director at the famed Vienna Staatsoper. But the rise of Germany's National Socialist Party and Adolf Hitler would irrevocably affect Strauss and his musical legacy. Upon coming to power in 1933, the Nazis created a state music bureau, the Reichsmusikkammer, and made him president without asking; it was largely a ceremonial office bestowed on him as the leading German composer, but Strauss also remained silent about new Nazi laws that excluded composers and musicians of Jewish heritage from this and other organizations, including all the leading orchestras. In 1933, Arturo Toscanini resigned in protest from the Bayreuth Festival over the Nazis' tactics, and Strauss was invited to take over as conductor.

A Bittersweet Finale

Though Nazi propaganda trumpeted Strauss's works as exemplarily "German," the composer opposed the Party when he attempted to premier another opera, Der Schweigsame Frau, with a libretto written by Stefan Zweig, a Jewish writer. Strauss objected when Zweig's name was omitted from the bill, and it enjoyed a brief run in Dresden before the Nazis shut it down. Strauss and his family were then placed under house arrest in Vienna, his music banned for a time, and all access to their assets blocked. But Strauss complied with these terms in order to protect his son's wife, who was Jewish, and their child. After the war, he and his family were allowed to emigrate to Switzerland.

After the war, Strauss was cleared of any collaborationist charges for holding Nazi office, and premiered a lament for 23 strings, Metamorphosen, in Zurich in early 1946. An elegiac piece, the 81-year-old composer wrote it after learning that all of Germany's great opera houses had been destroyed by Allied bombs. A 1947 London festival organized by Sir Thomas Beecham in his honor marked his final absolution, and his final work, Four Last Songs, premiered posthumously in 1950. He died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on September 8, 1949. While gravely ill, he famously uttered the words, "Dying is just as I composed it in Tod and Verklrung," according to Grove.

by Carol Brennan

Richard Strauss's Career

Began composing at the age of six; Symphony in D Minor premiered, March, 1881; made conducting debut with Meiningen Court Orchestra in Munich, November, 1884; became assistant conductor, Meiningen Court Orchestra, October, 1885, and principal music director, 1886; served as assistant conductor, Munich Court Opera, 1886-89; musical assistant for the 1889 and 1891 Bayreuth Festivals; first conductor, Weimar Court Orchestra, 1889-94; first opera, Guntram, premiered at Weimar Hofttheater, 1894; conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic, 1894-95; music director, Berlin Royal Opera, 1898-1910; co-founder, Salzburg Festival, 1917; co-director, Vienna Opera, 1919-24; Third Reich Music Chamber, president, and president of the Federation of German Composers, c. 1933-35.

Richard Strauss's Awards

Gold medal, Royal Philharmonic Society, London, 1936.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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